From Teaching to Selling

The following story explains how Reshan and I slowly bridged the gap between work we were doing in schools and work we were seeing / experiencing / doing in the business world. It was an early indication that we should write the book that became Make Yourself Clear. It’s written in the third person because it was originally included in that manuscript.


In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, three professors devoted an entire chapter to what they call “illusions of knowing” (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014). Steve picked up this text, and this chapter in particular, because he was preparing to teach the play Oedipus to a group of 9th graders.  He wanted to skip the usual fare — plot, character development, poetic structure — and dig into the ways in which the main character’s ego and bias blinded him to what he clearly should have seen. Increasingly, for Steve, this seems to be a lesson worth teaching and learning.

Oedipus, the main character, begins by setting out to find a murderer and bring him to justice. Oedipus is known as a person who invests his considerable resources and competencies, first and foremost, in being a good citizen of Thebes. He wants to serve the people of Thebes and be known as a first-rate fixer. This behavior is important to the story others tell about him, and perhaps more critically, to the story he tells himself about himself.  

The main problem is that Oedipus, himself, is the murderer he seeks. So it’s a mystery story wherein the detective is seeking himself. However, it is also a story about human psychology, because Oedipus can’t find himself (back in roughly 430 b.c.) for the same reasons that some professors must still write a book for teachers (back in roughly 2014) that exhorts them to help students avoid illusions of knowing.

Each of us is an astounding bundle of perceptual and cognitive abilities, coexisting with the seeds of our own undoing. When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled. (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014, p. 123)

The very mind that helps Oedipus, and any human being, to thrive also causes him, and us, to stumble, often making thriving a mere afterthought.

As Steve was grasping the combined insight of a Greek poet and modern day learning specialists, he was in the process of making the largest purchase in his life, a new home. And as he went through the buying process, he realized that he wasn’t searching for money, because, with his wife, he had saved what he needed to reach his goal. And he wasn’t searching for time, because he was a school administrator heading into the summer. He was searching for something else.

The teacher in Steve was looking for a teacher outside of Steve. More specifically, in this particular situation, the teacher was looking for a salesperson who was also a teacher and committed, in fact, to the same values as a good teacher. A salesperson-as-teacher would ensure that Steve saw things clearly; a salesperson-as-teacher would not be willing to trade on or exploit the asymmetry baked into the home-buying process.  

Good teachers help us to reduce errors in our thinking, help to bring us closer to reality in ways that help us to see and act with greater clarity and leverage.  In a sales sense, they would do so in a way that would promote symmetry in transactions, allowing buyers to make good decisions (good for us, good for the environment in which we are operating, good for others, etc.).

So when Steve met salespeople and business-people throughout and after the home-buying process — that is, when he met specialists looking to hawk their wares or designated agents looking to hawk the wares of specialists — Steve looked for teachers. Plumbers, attorneys, mortgage brokers, furnace mechanics, ductwork professionals, arborists, electricians, or their agents: there are always dozens of these people from which to choose.  And, at the same time, all these people have dozens of choices when dealing with a client. They can keep the client off balance and even in a position of fear, or they can help the client find balance and make calm and rational decisions. They can move quickly, hoping that speed will cause the buyer to make an emotional decision, using the faulty parts of his/her brain, or they can move slowly, helping the buyer to make an informed decision, using the correct parts of his/her brain.    

Steve didn’t look for a salesperson who could necessarily save him money (although that was always a nice perk). He looked for a salesperson who would make him a more empowered consumer, who would be present for him in human ways when he most needed human counsel. He looked for people, too, who would make him aware of the range of choices in front of him. In fact, anyone who wouldn’t take the time — without being asked — to teach him, to answer his questions, to expose his blind spots, didn’t get his business.  And never will again.

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